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Common(wealth) Knowledge #50: Succession antics

The succession to the British throne hasn’t always been so straightforward.

It’s coronation season, which means that everyone is talking about the royal family again. And this means that the media will inevitably bring up Princes Andrew and Harry, and whether King Charles III will treat them like his mother did. But the monarch’s not the only person involved in determining whether someone is out of the line of succession.

Although King Charles III has the power to strip other royal family members, he must work with Parliament if he wants to remove anyone from the line of succession. This is the result of decades of legislation by the UK Parliament.

The first important attempt to codify the line of succession happened in 1688/89, after Parliament invited Princess Mary and her husband, Prince William of Orange, to invade England and overthrow King James II, a Catholic and a tyrant. The now-King William III and Queen Mary II, as co-rulers, had to make concessions to Parliament, in return for being given the throne. This became known as the Bill of Rights 1689, and it stated that no Catholics could inherit the English throne, nor could anyone that married a Catholic. After all, the monarch was meant to be the head of the Church of England, which had split away from the Catholic Church.

The Stuart family, the English ruling dynasty of the 1600s, struggled to have children that lived to adulthood. King James II only became ruler because his older brother, King Charles II, had no heirs. King James II also had no sons, but he had two daughters. Under the ‘agnatic-cognatic primogeniture’ rule of succession that applied in England, if there were no male heirs, the oldest female heir could inherit the throne.

The Bill of Rights 1689 stated that if William and Mary had no heirs, and Mary died, William would keep the throne. When he died, it would go to Princess Anne, Mary’s sister. If Anne died and had no heirs, then the throne would be given to any heirs that William had from a marriage after Mary died. It was expected that one of the three monarchs would have children who could inherit the throne.

But even the best-laid plans can fail. When Mary died, William refused to remarry. To make matters worse, Anne’s only child to make it past age 2, Prince William, died in 1700, at age 11. After Prince William’s death, Parliament decided that they needed to act. The only other Stuart alive was Sophia of Hanover, the wife of Elector Augustus of Hanover, in what is now north-west Germany. She was a granddaughter of James I, the first Stuart ruler of England. So the Act of Settlement 1701 said that if Anne had no heirs, Sophia’s family was next-in-line.

Under Queen Anne’s rule, the Acts of Union 1707, which were identical laws passed in Scotland and England, united the two crowns as Great Britain. The Act of Settlement 1701 extended the English inheritance rules to Ireland, and now Great Britain and Ireland, although still separate kingdoms, had the same inheritance laws. By now it was clear that the late Sophia’s son, Prince George of Hanover, would succeed Queen Anne. By the time Queen Anne died in 1714, at age 49, she had been pregnant 17 times; only 5 were live births.

The Royal Marriages Act 1772 brought about another change. Apart from the marriages of children of royal princesses that had married into foreign royal families, all marriages had to be approved by the monarch, at the time King George II, to be valid. However, a royal family member had one year to appeal this decision to Parliament. If either House of Parliament approved of the marriage, it was valid. At the time, Europe was run by monarchies, so marriages were often done for political alliances, not love. This law reinforced the political role of royal marriages.

A minor succession crisis came in 1837, on the death of King William IV. He did not have any legitimate heirs, so the throne of the Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, now united under the Acts of Union 1801, was to pass to his niece, Princess Victoria, in keeping with the British tradition of agnatic-cognatic succession.

Except there was one problem. Although the Acts of Union Act 1801 united the Kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland under one crown, the Kingdom of Hanover, brought into the family by King George I upon Queen Anne’s death, wasn’t affected by it. Hanover was part of the Holy Roman Empire, established by Emperor Charlemagne, King of the Franks. This meant its inheritance laws were affected by the laws of the Holy Roman Empire, and its Salic law prevented women from inheriting any throne within the HRE. Because the British Parliament wouldn’t change its inheritance laws to copy the HRE’s, the succession of Queen Victoria meant that Hanover went back into German hands.

The most famous succession crisis was the Abdication Crisis of King Edward VIII in 1936. At the time, Church of England religious doctrine did not allow a person to remarry if their ex-spouse was alive, which is ironic as King Henry VIII created the Church of England to grant himself a divorce. Public outcry at the king marrying Wallis Simpson, an American woman going through her second divorce, led to Edward choosing to abdicate and marry Simpson.

By this time, the role of Parliament in establishing the line of succession meant that Parliament had to pass His Majesty’s Declaration of Abdication Act 1936 to remove him from the line of succession. By now, the Statute of Westminster had been adopted in Canada, so the Canadian Parliament had to ‘request and consent’ that the change in the head of state, who was by now the King of Great Britain and the King of Canada, apply to them also, through the Succession to the Throne Act 1937.

When Australia adopted the Statute of Westminster with the aspiringly-named Statute of Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1942 (Cth), Australia agreed that it would do the same in the future. For more on the Statute of Westminster, check out Common(wealth) Knowledge #47, and read Common(wealth) Knowledge #12 to see how the notion of a ‘divisible crown’ developed.

Today, the succession law of the UK, and also of Australia, has been greatly simplified. The Perth Agreement of 2011, chaired by Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and attended by all Commonwealth realm Prime Ministers, made several agreements. These are found in the UK’s Succession to the Crown Act 2013 and the respective laws of the other Commonwealth realms, including Australia’s Succession to the Crown Act 2015 (Cth).

Under the new laws, the line of succession for all members of the royal family born after 28 October 2011, the first day of the summit, is governed by ‘absolute primogeniture,’ meaning that gender didn’t matter anymore; a person’s position in the line of succession would only be determined by their age and their parent’s place in the line of succession.

The Bill of Rights 1689 and Act of Settlement 1701 have been amended to remove the disqualification for marrying a Catholic. However, if a member of the royal family becomes a member of the Catholic Church, they are disqualified.

Finally, the Royal Marriages Act 1772 was repealed, and the need for consent by the monarch to marry has been limited to only the first six individuals in the line of succession. With most of Europe now being governed by democracies, and any monarchies limited to constitutional monarchies, the political and diplomatic roles of royal marriages is all but gone.

For now, Princes Harry and Andrew are still in the line of succession. If King Charles III wants to remove them, he needs to work with Parliament to pass a law to do so.

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Act of Settlement 1701, 12 & 13 Will 3, c. 2.

Acts of Union 1707, 6 Ann, c 11.

Acts of Union 1801, 39 & 40 Geo 3, c. 67.

Bill of Rights 1689, 1 Wm & M sess 2, c 2.

Royal Marriages Act 1772, 12 Geo 3 c. 11.


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